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COVID surge; battered state parks; housing crisis; hospitals sue patients; tossed election complaint

Of note: This week we highlight coverage of the crisis in Wisconsin’s hospitals as COVID-19 patients — the majority of them unvaccinated — again pack emergency rooms and ICUs, meaning long waits and forcing some hospitals to turn down requests for transfers of patients who need advanced or specialty care. “We’re paralyzed. We have no place to go with these folks,” Heather Schimmers, chief nursing officer at Gundersen Health System’s La Crosse hospital, told Madeline Heim and Natalie Eilbert of the Appleton Post-Crescent. Gov. Tony Evers is asking the Biden administration to send 100 health care workers to boost hospital staffing as hospitalizations reach numbers not seen since last winter — before COVID vaccines were available.   

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Dr. Manar Alshahrouri, a critical care doctor, stands outside HSHS St. Vincent, one of two Green Bay hospitals where he treats COVID-19 patients. Ebony Cox / USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

‘We’re paralyzed’: Wisconsin hospitals struggle to transfer and place new patients

Appleton Post-Crescent — December 4, 2021 

In 34 years of practicing medicine, Dr. Robert Mead, a family physician at Bellin Health, never had to turn away an ambulance or decline patients in need of comprehensive care. But several times over the past couple of weeks, Mead said, Bellin had to “go on diversion,” meaning the hospital wasn’t able to accept a patient either coming via ambulance or as a referred transfer from another health care provider. It’s become an alarming trend in Wisconsin hospitals. State hospital leaders say their facilities are bottlenecked as the number of COVID-19 patients continues to rise, forcing them to turn down requests for transfers from smaller hospitals of patients who need advanced or specialty care. It’s driving some patients to travel hundreds of miles from home to receive hospital care.

Read more from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers seeks 100 FEMA workers, utilizes National Guard nurses for hospital staffing shortages as COVID-19 surges

High water and a closed boardwalk are seen at Whitefish Dunes State Park in Door County, Wis., on Sept. 23, 2021. Lake Michigan’s high waters in recent years have limited beach access and damaged amenities at state parks along the shoreline. Brett Kosmider / Door County Pulse

Wisconsin state parks battered as Lake Michigan shrinks beaches, smashes boardwalks

Wisconsin Watch — December 9, 2021

Lake Michigan’s winds and waves have sculpted the landscape of Whitefish Dunes State Park along Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. Water delivers fine sand to a shoreline that supports threatened plants like the dune thistle. Wind stacks that sand into the mighty dunes that inspired the park’s name. Summer visitors splash on its beach, and come winter, gazers marvel at erupting ice volcanoes. But those same winds and waters are also whittling away the park’s landmarks — eroding dunes, toppling trees, damaging amenities and, at times, swallowing the beach whole.

Read Wisconsin Watch’s full Imperiled Shores series here

Growing unsheltered population forces a reckoning with Wisconsin’s housing crisis

WPR — December 7, 2021

In a typical year, Ben Jackson said he might connect with about 230 unsheltered people in Madison. The former park ranger does street outreach for a homelessness nonprofit called Porchlight. But last year that number soared to about 600 as the pandemic pushed people out of work, Jackson said. Navigating and accessing the shelter system takes time, and it doesn’t work for everyone. Shelters typically don’t allow pets or couples without children. Many have sobriety requirements, which is difficult for people struggling with addition. Crowded shelters can also be triggering for people suffering from mental health disorders, and congregate settings were especially risky when COVID-19 emerged.

Read previous coverage from Wisconsin Watch: Long waits for federal rental assistance leave Milwaukee-area residents fearing eviction

Cassie Symons, a physical therapist assistant, works with patient Peter Langreck, who had a bilateral knee replacement, at Marshfield Medical Center-Neillsville. Wisconsin hospital lawsuits against patients over unpaid bills are rising, with the highest rates among small, rural hospitals, a new study said. Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Hospital lawsuits over unpaid bills on the rise in Wisconsin, study says

Wisconsin State Journal — December 7, 2021

Lawsuits by Wisconsin hospitals against patients over unpaid bills rose 37% from 2001 to 2018, with small, rural hospitals suing the highest proportion of patients. The share of cases resulting in patients having their wages garnished to pay back medical debt increased, according to the study by researchers at Yale and Stanford universities, published Monday in the journal Health Affairs. Black patients were sued more than whites, the analysis suggested. “Whether it’s surprise medical bills or this rise in hospitals suing over unpaid medical bills, these kinds of financial risks make patients wary of going to the hospital for care they need,” said Zack Cooper, an associate professor of health policy at Yale and co-author of the study. 

Read more from Wisconsin Watch and WPR: Costly Care, investigating the impact of medical debt on people in Wisconsin 

Elections Commission tosses out complaints against private election grants to Wisconsin cities

Wisconsin State Journal — December 9, 2021

The bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission on Wednesday threw out challenges against private grant funding provided to the state’s largest cities to help administer last year’s election during the COVID-19 pandemic. The complaints were filed earlier this year by Erick Kaardal, a GOP attorney for the Thomas More Society and former secretary and treasurer for the Republican Party of Minnesota, and alleged that officials in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine broke state election laws when they accepted funding from the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life, which is funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Elections commission lawyers dismissed the complaints, saying they don’t “raise probable cause to believe that a violation of law or abuse of discretion has occurred.”

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